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by Jaclyn Friedman

On a recent trip to speak at a college, I wound up chatting with a student who was struggling to help a friend in a difficult situation. Trouble is, she’s not sure if she really wants help. That got me to thinking about the perennial question of how to help a friend in an emotionally or physically abusive relationship – specifically if your friend doesn’t want to leave.

One thing that’s common to all victims of relationship abuse, whether it’s emotional or physical, is that the abusive partner spends a lot of time trying to make their victim feel helpless, so that ze will rely on the abuser more and more, and will be more easily manipulated. That’s what makes this situation so tricky – oftentimes the victim is convinced ze has no better options, that ze is lucky to be with the abuser. From the outside, that can seem mystifying. But it’s crucial to remember, because if you swan in and tell hir ze’s in a bad relationship and ze needs to get out, how do you think ze’s going to feel? Probably, like you’re just someone else telling hir what ze should do with hir life and hir body, yet again. It may seem strange to you, since you have hir well-being at heart and the abuser obviously doesn’t, but you’re going to seem very similar to the abuser, in that you’re just telling hir that you know better than ze does what ze should do.

On the other hand, if you show hir that you have faith in hir ability to think and act for hirself, you may actually be able to reach hir. Start by asking hir how she thinks the relationship is going, and really listen. Does ze express fears or reservations about some of the dynamics between hir and hir partner? If so, steer the conversation in that direction, give hir lots of room to explore and express those feelings.

If ze claims all’s well, but you think ze’s in a dangerous or unhealthy situation, you’re going to have to broach the subject. (Not sure if you should be concerned? Here’s a pretty good list of warning signs – if even a few of them are present, your friend may be in trouble.) But remember: whatever you do, don’t tell hir what you think ze should do. Instead, tell hir that you are seeing some things happen between hir and hir partner that concern you. Be specific – give examples of the behavior that concerns you, and explain as clearly as you can why it worries you. Perhaps give examples of relationships you know of where healthier dynamics are present, as an example of how things can be different. Then ask hir what ze thinks of the dynamics you’ve described. Try not to argue with hir. Try to just really listen and understand. If you feel like ze is excusing away dangerous behavior, telling hir ze’s wrong isn’t going to help. Instead, tell hir you’re glad ze’s happy, but your concerns remain. Then emphasize that whether or not ze ever changes hir mind, you’re there for hir. One of the main ways abusers instill helplessness and vulnerability in their victims is by isolating them from their friends. Don’t play into this dynamic – be sure ze knows you’re not going anywhere, no matter what ze does or doesn’t do.

Here’s where it gets frustrating. If you’ve tried to help, and ze has refused, you’re going to come face-to-face with the sometimes-terrible truth is that you can’t help someone who doesn’t want help. All you can do is let them know that they have options and support. When it comes to people we love who are being abused, that can be pretty difficult to swallow, but it’s still true. And that’s why, if you’re in this situation, the other thing to do is get support for yourself. Talk to friends and family about it. You can also call whatever hotlines in your area are available to support rape or abuse victims, and get support for yourself – the trained folks who staff these hotlines know that supporting the support networks of victims is just as important as supporting the victims themselves – and sometimes the only way they can offer support to victims, if they don’t yet want help for themselves.

(If you can’t find anything near you, and you’re in the US, call RAINN – the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. Their national hotline is at 800-656-HOPE. They also run an online hotline which can be accessed wherever you are in the world, as long as you have an internet connection: www.rainn.org.)

Once you’ve done all you can, and you’re feeling like you’ve got all the support you need, the only other thing you can do is make good on your promise, and be there for your friend no matter what. Check in with hir once in a while, but don’t be too pushy – don’t make your concern for hir the subject of conversation every single time you hang out. Just be hir friend – refusing to let hir be isolated can be one of the most powerful and loving gifts you can give someone in this situation. 

(Got a question for Jaclyn, or a topic suggestion for this column? Email her at yesmeansyes@jaclynfriedman.com, or contact her anonymously via Formspring.)

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